Violence in the 1979 Imperial Valley Lettuce strike

LA Times article from 1986 discussing the court hearings about violence deployed during the Imperial Valley lettuce strike 1979. The article is not sympathetic to the workers, but contains information not easily found elsewhere.

Submitted by Mike Harman on February 8, 2017

Vegetable grower Carl Maggio has won the first round in his $1.8-million civil damage suit against the Cesar Chavez-led United Farm Workers union as a result of the violence-marred 1979 Imperial Valley lettuce strikes in which one striker was shot to death.

After years of legal wrangling and a seven-month trial--longest in Imperial County history--a Superior Court judge in El Centro has ruled that there was "clear, unequivocal and convincing proof" that the union "authorized, participated in and ratified regular, consistent and repeated" acts of violence and ruled that the union was liable for damages.

During the strike against seven Imperial County growers that began in January, 1979, and lasted through the early summer, UFW striker Rufino Contreras, 27, was killed by an unknown assailant, several other pickets were wounded by gunfire and one was injured when struck by a pickup truck.

Rock-Throwing Pickets

Growers, ranch guards and strike-breaking workers were attacked by rock-throwing pickets during one of the longest and most violent labor confrontations in the history of the controversial farm workers' union.

Although Judge William B. Lehnhardt, in a ruling filed last week but not publicized until Tuesday, found that the union had acted without malice or fraud and therefore was not subject to punitive damages, he ruled that the union was liable for crop losses in 13 Imperial Valley fields. The non-jury trial will be resumed June 10 to determine the amount of damages sustained by Maggio.

This is believed to be the first time that a court has ruled that Chavez--known for his nonviolent philosophies since the earliest days of the farm worker movement--and other union leaders authorized and condoned violent strike actions. Chavez once fasted for 28 days in a Gandhi-like display of his nonviolence and later called off a strike that threatened to become violent.

"Cesar Chavez has been known to profess the attributes of non-violence. . . . This case makes it clear that Mr. Chavez does not practice what he preaches," Ronald Barsamian of Fresno, one of the lawyers representing Maggio, said Tuesday.

Although Chavez was not available for comment, Lehnhardt's ruling brought prompt and angry denials from the union and its attorneys. "We are a nonviolent union. Our policy was and continues to be nonviolent, and we are very disappointed in this decision," said Barbara Macri, a UFW spokesperson.

Appeal Expected

Union attorneys said they expect to appeal the decision.

The union had sought to disqualify Lehnhardt from hearing the case, contending that the judge is biased because his wife was employed by Maggio as a non-union packer during the strike.

The possible conflict of interest over his wife's employment was brought up by Lehnhardt in May, 1985, two months after the trial started. He informed attorneys from both sides of the potential problem, and the UFW sought, unsuccessfully, to disqualify Lehnhardt at that time.

When the trial resumed in December, Jay Jeffcoat, an attorney for the growers, presented evidence, including videotapes, showing large numbers of strikers rushing into the fields carrying clubs and hurling rocks at strikebreakers and farm vehicles. The judge concluded that these were "acts of unlawful picketing" and ruled against the union.

Union lawyers sought to prove that the violence was started by the growers and by private security guards and gun-carrying field workers they hired. "The bottom line is that the rock throwing started only after the strikers were run down, shot at and otherwise provoked," UFW attorney Hermil Moreno said.